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The phlegmatic sits by the window...

Experiences with actual Waldorf teaching

Miss Claudia Pangh, original in German published by Reinhard Karst,Translated by EC

I was very glad to have finally found a forum that offers a critical discussion of Anthroposophy and Waldorf pedagogy. We often see parents and outside observers expressing discomfort with some aspect or other of Waldorf, but we rarely see any examination of the pedagogical method or the actual instructional practices. This is because the Waldorf teachers are usually devout Anthroposophists, who show little willingness to question their methods. Concerned parents, on the other hand, usually have too little knowledge in the subject matter to be able to critically judge and compare what they perceive.

For this reason, I would like to contribute my own experiences with Waldorf pedagogy, to which I was introduced from a teacher's perspective. Like many young prospective teachers, I searched for alternative, progressively-oriented concepts when I started my studies to become a public school teacher. Like many of them, I soon came across the Waldorf schools. After my third semester I had decided that I wanted to get to know one such alternative school in an additional, non-mandatory internship. It was hard, however, to find a school that would offer such an internship. Finally, after multiple attempts, and only with great trepidation, the Independent Waldorf school near my parent's hometown agreed to a 6-week internship. Aside from their overall teaching method, I was particularly interested in their early foreign language instruction since I myself had studied French, which I also taught later in elementary school.

I have to admit that I did not know anything about Anthroposophy. I was amazed at first, and later increasingly appalled, by how much this ideology dominates the day-to-day dealings in Waldorf schools. Aside from its content, about which people may agree or disagree depending on their personal beliefs, I already perceived that the general setup for teaching was far from being progressive, which, in my opinion, has everything to do with opening up the learning situation and with self-determination of the students.

I had been assigned to the "main lesson" teacher of a 2nd grade class, but I also had the opportunity to obtain some inside views into the lessons given in other grades. In this class, forty-two (!) children sat in pairs at double desks, all facing the teacher. The organic form of the room and the pastel-colored walls didn't compensate for such an arrangement. I quickly learned that large classes were the rule at this school, and not the exception. In this light, a cap of thirty-three students in public school classes seems like paradise--even though we rightly complain that one cannot properly work with the individual student in groups that large.

The seating arrangement was face-to-face, and face-to-face lecturing was all, in terms of methodical variation, that I saw during my 6 weeks. In my opinion, for the most part you couldn't even call it teaching--it was more akin to organized chanting. Every school day was so ritualized that a large part of the morning was taken up by the recitation of verses, either individually or as a group. I don't know how many parents are aware of the nature of these verses to which their children are exposed on a daily basis, and which the students have to learn by heart. From my point of view, they carried a distinctly Christian-Anthroposophical world view, which, in my opinion, should only have a place in religious instruction. I would even doubt that the seven and eight year old kids had any understanding of the meaning of the words they parroted every day. Fortunately, conflicts with children from different religions or cultures did not arise; I found my Waldorf school to be a zone completely void of foreigners.

A rigid and very strict regime guided the recitation of verses as well as the complete morning schedule. Nothing of what I had learned about a second-grader's urge to playful movement was taken into account. On the contrary, a great emphasis was put on discipline. I think there's hardly any other way to handle a class of forty-two kids.

The actual instruction in class was executed as rigidly as the recitation. No matter whether students wrote, drew, or calculated, everything was done in rigid monotony. There were only a few moments in which the children could contribute their own ideas. Usually, people stuck to the prescribed schedule. Each of my shy questions about the reasons for the various measures and schedules was answered with a reference to Rudolf Steiner's works. For my host, the maxims Steiner had developed in the twenties contained clear and unconditional truth, and they were never questioned.

I particularly recall my experiences in the German lessons. According to Steiner's seven year cycles, our 2nd graders were in the developmental stage of myths, legends and fables. Even if we ignore that there are models of child development that would disagree with that assumption, this meant the girls and boys did not see any other type of text for the entire school year. During my internship, fables were on the schedule. This meant that every day, I had to recite a text by La Fontaine (or a similar author) by heart. The teachers at my school rejected reading from books, because Steiner had spoken out against it in some of his writings.

My recitation happened in a fixed ritual every day. Despite the story's language, which I found inappropriate for their age, the kids were eager to learn more about the raven, the fox and about what happened with the cheese, and followed the story with interest. Every normal elementary school teacher would have immediately picked up on this and would have motivated the students to creatively apply the story to the students' own lives, as the guidelines of student-centered and task-based learning suggest [1]. Not so the Waldorf teachers! Steiner apparently found in one of his wise indications that for seven year olds, purely receptive listening is the only appropriate way to process literature. Having to regularly kill the creative urge of forty-two more or less highly motivated children hurt my soul! Even the discussion of the fables had to happen on the following day--apparently, Steiner declared at some point that in children of this age, such matters had to settle first.

I could tell you more, for instance about Konrad, who came to school one Monday with big eyes and enthusiastically showed the book his aunt had given him over the weekend. It was "Satyrs come on Saturday" [Am Samstag kommt das Sams] by Paul Maar. Any reasonable elementary school teacher would have kissed Konrad for bringing this great book and would have scheduled an impromptu reading session. Not so my Waldorf colleague, who suggested the child leave such material at home in the future since it depicts adults in ways that are clearly inappropriate.

I could also talk about the pedagogical criteria to judge students according to their temperaments, which were completely new to me, and the strange seating arrangement resulting from them. The sanguines sit by the wall, because they're already so wound up, but the phlegmatics sit by the window, cause they need the energy of the light! Or I could talk about the often praised foreign language instruction, which I found to be a stupid memorization of poems and verses, among others, the poem "La fourmi et la grenouille" by La Fontaine from the 18th century--a text on which even students of romance languages sometimes break their teeth.

There was not a trace of communication competency. I was convinced the children didn't even understand what they chanted on a regular basis, and I don't even want to mention the complete lack of meaningful application of the language to actual situations, which current foreign language theory suggests. I won't even talk about eurythmy; I knew before my internship that it is a part of Waldorf and that different people have different views on it.

I could name many more examples and each would support my findings. Since this internship, if someone mentions Waldorf pedagogy as an alternative or progressive school idea, I contradict them strongly. I have found the entire school to be a very inflexible and regimented system, whose theories and methods were stuck in the twenties, exactly as Steiner had left them. In my view, this preservation can be explained by the partially blind obedience with which the master's writings were interpreted and put to work. Only what Steiner had written or lectured at some point had validity at the school, and those instructions were interpreted literally. Every single one of my doubts or questions was hammered off the table with this argument. Sixty years of pedagogical development were completely ignored! But what may have been revolutionary then is simply inadequate for today's children. This school completely tunes out the reality of today's society. I doubt that this is a meaningful way to prepare children for their future life. I also did not see the students in a free atmosphere, on the contrary, they were in a totalistic regime. It remains a mystery to me how this is supposed to further the much-touted free development of creativity. I also don't see the purported advantage over public schools. In my opinion, in many cases the potential that Waldorf students frequently show at performances comes from their home life, rather than the school. After all, they very often come from active and conscientious middle class families who already promote their children's abilities in multiple ways.

Based on my experiences, I think that many parents don't realize what immense importance the Anthroposophical ideology has in Waldorf schools. Families will probably get into conflicts right away if the parents aren't convinced and practicing Anthroposophists themselves; the impression of a certain amount of indoctrination appeared at least partly justified. As I said, Anthroposophically oriented families probably won't have a problem with that, but others should think twice about what they are getting into.

In discussions with people convinced of Waldorf I often hear that I must have encountered a particularly gross example with 150% Anthros. That may be true, but the simple fact that such an extreme and insane example is possible in this much-praised school system is enough for me to be fundamentally skeptical towards this pedagogical method. Of course, these people mention in their reply such advantages as the creative elements of Waldorf pedagogy and the absence of grades. But if one knows only a little about progressive education, one will quickly notice that similar elements can be found in other approaches as well. Learning without grades is also being practiced in pilot projects in public schools, it's nothing Waldorf-specific. If you add in the success factor (the 2nd grade still had a long way to go before they'd be able to write), certain doubts become hard to suppress.

What bugs me most is that the Waldorf schools are still presented as THE ultimate progressive schools, and many parents who only want the best for their child blindly trust their concept. Of course, it is possible to find plenty of negative experiences with teaching and teachers in public schools, but this makes it even worse if Waldorf pedagogy is presented as THE shining counter-ideal. The expectations of many critical parents will remain unfulfilled, for example when it comes to self-determined and individualized learning. A pedagogical concept becomes questionable in my eyes if it tunes out the reality of society to the extent Waldorf pedagogy does. Some may view this as shelter for their children, but I would call it otherworldliness. If school is to prepare for an emancipated life in society, it has to confront the difficulties and problems of the children, no matter whether it is the media, violence, racism or other issues.

Finally, one should realize in this public discussion that in the mean time the ideas and goals of progressive education have made their way into public schools. The picture that is painted in public about the teaching reality in public schools these days is often wrong. As a student of social pedagogy, herself a Waldorf graduate, said when she watched independent work in a classroom run by myself and a colleague: "Oh, how wonderful, I didn't know teaching like this can be so much fun!"

Translator's note

[1] she said "handlungs- und produktionsorientierten Literaturunterrichts". This pedagogical term is used in some German didactics textbooks. The adjectives are actually "handlungsorientiert" and "produktorientiert". According to Reinhard Donath (, who consulted Prof. Bach from Bremen, "handlungsorientiert" can be translated as "student centered learning" or "task-based learning". "Produktorientiert" means to be oriented towards the "objective of the learning process". Bach has authored books on the subject in the context of foreign language instruction.

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